Slow ride

The Massachusetts legislature’s unfinished business
By ADAM REILLY  |  April 26, 2006

Health care reform? Anti-gang legislature? Pharmacy access? Economic stimulus? The state house has unfinished businessWhen the members of the Massachusetts Legislature run for re-election this fall, they’ll brag about the landmark health-care-reform legislation they passed earlier this month. What they won’t mention — if they’re smart — is all the other important business they neglected while health care dominated Beacon Hill.

Take the economy. Just last week, Massachusetts Democratic Party chair Phil Johnston used some bleak economic news — that the state’s unemployment rate had outpaced the national average for the second month in a row — to bash Republican governor Mitt Romney and lieutenant governor Kerry Healey. “With Mitt Romney’s focus trained on the White House and Kerry Healey [who is running for governor] busy attempting to distance herself from the other half of the Romney-Healey administration,” Johnston complained, “it is not surprising that the business of creating jobs has gone undone.”

Good stuff, if you’re a Democrat craving election-year red meat. But here’s the problem: Romney filed his own economic-stimulus bill on March 3, 2005 — 13 and a half months ago. The House and Senate, where Democrats have veto-proof majorities, didn’t pass their own stimulus bills until October and November of 2005, respectively. And in nearly six months’ time, the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies — the body charged with crafting a compromise version of the bills — still hasn’t managed to get the job done. (The new funding mechanism for arts and culture proposed by both chambers is a terrific idea — see “A Bold Proposal,” News and Features, August 5, 2005 — but until it’s actually implemented, it won’t do much good.)

One State House observer thinks the delay is borderline absurd. “There has to be a question raised about how timely the bill is going to be when it finally gets out,” this source says. “Either it’s important and it should get done, or it’s not that important and it shouldn’t get done. But the idea — ‘Let’s take emergency measures to jump-start the economy, but take two years doing it’ — is just kind of farcical.”

The hidden injuries of delay
That’s not the only troubling example of State House torpor. Remember that proposal to legalize syringe purchases and possession, with an eye toward reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C? The House passed its version of the pharmacy-access bill in November of last year. The Senate — whose leader, Senate president Robert Travaglini, is considered a legalization sympathizer — was expected to follow suit in December. It didn’t.

According to the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, this delay has taken a substantial human toll. AIDS Action estimates that dirty needles account for nearly 400 new cases of HIV and 6000 cases of Hepatitis C in the state each year. This yields a daily infection rate of about one and 16.5, respectively, which means that, since the House sent the matter to the Senate, about 160 HIV infections and more than 2600 Hep C infections have occurred that could have been prevented by clean needles.

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He's Stayin’

One factor that could influence the legislature’s ability to have a productive 2006: Senate president Robert Travaglini’s plans for the future. There’s been buzz of late that Travaglini might leave the State House for a private-sector job. But earlier this week, at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Travaglini said these rumors were off base. “Let me say that I am running for re-election, and I’m not being cute.”

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